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Philanthropist Robert H.N. Ho in his West Vancouver office earlier this year. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Philanthropist Robert H.N. Ho in his West Vancouver office earlier this year. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

How Vancouver’s Forbidden City exhibition could be the start of something bigger Add to ...

When The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors arrives at the Vancouver Art Gallery a year from now, it will be one of the most significant exhibitions in the gallery’s history. But the three local powerhouses who made it happen have even bigger ambitions: the establishment of Vancouver as a major cultural gateway between China and North America and, ultimately, the creation of a permanent home for Chinese art and culture in the city – possibly in the VAG’s current home.

“A lot of Chinese are hungry for this sort of thing and also [other] Vancouverites,” says Robert H.N. Ho, founder of the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, the presenting sponsor of the exhibition, which opens at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto next March before travelling west in the fall.

The announcement that the show will be travelling to Vancouver in October, 2014, after the ROM – which is curating the exhibition – was made on Monday at the VAG. The exhibition, which will remain installed in Vancouver until Jan. 11, 2015, will showcase up to 200 exquisite objects on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing, many of which have never before left China.

But Ho and his partners hope it is only the beginning – part of a venture they’re launching called China Global: The Vancouver Society for the Promotion of Chinese Arts and Culture. Established by Ho, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada president Yuen Pau Woo, and Vancouver-based businessman and arts patron Ron Stern, the group was dreamed up over a few lunches at swish Vancouver restaurants, with the purpose of promoting Vancouver as a cultural nexus point between Asia and North America.

“We came together from slightly different perspectives, but we share this vision that Vancouver can be a city with a world-class Asian artistic and cultural presence,” said Woo during a recent interview from Beijing, where he attended a performance of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra – exactly the kind of cultural diplomacy, he says, that is integral to strengthening ties between Canada and Asia.

“I’m not a connoisseur of art and I don’t have any credentials in art history or aesthetic appreciation, but I understand the Canada-Asia relationship very well and I feel very strongly that one aspect of that relationship that has so much potential is in the cultural space,” said Woo, adding that Vancouver can be much more than an Asia-Pacific gateway for shipping or business – and that this is something governments, which are anxious to promote these ties, should be supporting. “Until we embed the city more deeply into the passions of Asia, of the region, we will not be able to achieve the kind of economic and political linkages that I think our leaders aspire to.”

Ho, who turns 81 on Tuesday and lives in West Vancouver (his family foundation is based in Hong Kong), is the driving force behind the China Global effort – and this exhibition. In the eight years since his foundation was established, it has granted tens of millions of dollars to support Chinese arts and culture (as well as promote a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy). Earlier this year, it gave about $10-million (U.S.) to the Guggenheim Museum in New York to commission works from contemporary Chinese artists. It has also brought the Terracotta Warriors to Toronto and Montreal.

The VAG exhibition marks the first project for China Global, which has charitable status. If Monday’s announcement served as a sort of debut for the group, the exhibition next year will, the group hopes, function as a kind of coming-out party, and whet the city’s appetite for Chinese art and culture. The group will be seeking new members – and donors – and views the exhibition as a historically rich launching pad for the effort’s future.

The group’s goal is to bring major exhibitions from China to Canada, and Vancouver in particular, but with a view toward building support for a permanent China-themed artistic cultural facility in Vancouver.

“It would just make the city so much richer,” says Stern. “It’s just a total void in the city. [We] have this wonderful [Asian] population…. But if you look at the institutions, there’s no institution that reflects their history and their culture. And that’s something that is both something to be remedied, but also just an enormous opportunity.”

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently seizing on an opportunity of its own; it is in the process of trying to build a new facility, and move from its cramped site – a former provincial courthouse originally designed by Francis Rattenbury and renovated for the gallery by Arthur Erickson. The VAG needs to raise a pile of money on a tight schedule – an additional $150-million by the end of April, 2015, in order to secure the conditional lease of the land from the city of Vancouver, plus further capital funds to build the gallery. It seems likely that an exhibition like this could do much to boost the VAG’s capital campaign, in terms of promoting the idea of a new gallery to Metro Vancouver’s large Chinese community. (While the city has stipulated that the $150-million is to come from the provincial and federal governments, it has indicated a willingness to accept private-sector donations to raise that money as well.)

The city has already signalled that, should the VAG be successful in leaving its current home, it would like to repurpose its current site for cultural use. Among the institutions that have expressed interest are the Museum of Vancouver and the Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society. As chair of the latter, Stern was among those who presented a proposal two years ago to build a concert hall and theatre complex underneath the old courthouse.

Now Stern and his China Global partners also have their eyes on the building as the future home for a museum for Chinese Arts and Culture (Stern says the museum could easily co-exist with his underground concert-hall proposal, and UBC, which is also interested in the facility).

Given the timeline – the VAG move, should it happen, is not projected to occur until the spring of 2020 – China Global will consider other sites for their proposed museum as well. But as they prepare for the huge exhibition of Chinese antiquities, the current site of the VAG is dominating the dreaming.

“Why not a world-class, Asia-themed museum in that very space?” says Woo. “We’ll get a chance to imagine what it might be like in the fall of 2014.”

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